As a little girl growing up in a small village in the Netherlands, Wendy Van Boxtel learned the basics of painting.
She studied with a local artist, a friend of the family, who taught her “the old-fashioned way of painting,” Van Boxtel recalled.
She started with pencil, first learning how to make a simple circle, then moving on eventually to landscapes and still lifes, using oils and acrylics, charcoals and pastels. She likened the process to an author developing writing skills and style by reading many books.
“If you read a lot of books, you know how to use different words and make sentences ... and write your own book,” she said.
Same with painting. You learn and practice as much as you can, and “you can make your own art,” the 46-year-old said.
Which is precisely what she is doing now, decades later and a world away from where she started.
After setting aside her art for a few years when her children were young, Van Boxtel combines painting with sculpture to produce artwork that creates an optical illusion.
Van Boxtel, who lives with her family in Mechanicsville, received a nice boost recently when two of her pieces were chosen for display at ArtPrize 2021, an international arts competition that turns Grand Rapids, Mich., into a giant art gallery. Of the 1,500 entries, 877 pieces of art were selected to be displayed at a wide variety of venues around the city, an ArtPrize spokesperson said. The 18-day event ends Oct. 3.
Van Boxtel is thrilled that her two works are on display in the busy lobby of a Hilton hotel.
Both pieces combine, as Van Boxtel describes, “optical painting on sculptural body pieces, physically and visually extending the limits” of a painting hanging on a wall. Both pieces also were inspired by the pandemic.
“Patiently Waiting” depicts a figure sitting on the edge of a safe space receding into the painting, while seeming to peer cautiously around the corner to see if the coast is clear. The other, “Oops,” features a pair of legs, dangling from the flat, hardwood painting surface, the unseen rest of the body disappearing into a tunnel that extends deep into the painting.
“During COVID, we all have wished we could go places other than home,” Van Boxtel explains. “At times, we wished to jump into another world, a different world than we are currently living in.”
She has been developing the concept for these kinds of pieces for five years, she said, sketching and doodling and trying to figure out what sort of materials would allow her to do what she had in mind.
The tricky part was coming up with a concoction for the sculpture part that was rock-hard and would adhere to the painting but is lightweight and wouldn’t break off once dry. She settled on a mixture of clay, metals and other components that seems to work. The paint she uses is a water-based acrylic.
She loves creating illusions — “I’ve been obsessed with illusions since I was little,” she says — while also telling stories of people and how they connect to one another. She also enjoys leaving the viewer to wonder.
“My main goal is to have somebody look at my paintings, then literally stop, go back and forth, and say, ‘What in the world?’” said Van Boxtel, whose work also was selected for display earlier this year at the Chelsea International Fine Art Competition Exhibition in New York. “People questioning their own eyes. I get a kick out of that the most.”
Van Boxtel has always been involved in the arts, though she hasn’t always created her own art. She has worked as a muralist and graphic designer and first came to the United States after college, teaching art at a summer camp for children with special needs. She also has worked as an art facilitator in a program giving people with disabilities access to painting, sculpting and other forms of art.
She met her husband, Aaron, in New Jersey, and they moved to Virginia a dozen years ago. They have five children — ages 16 to 7 — and the youngest entering school signaled a resumption of Van Boxtel’s art career. Of course, her return to creating art has coincided with the pandemic, which one might consider unlucky, though Van Boxtel prefers to view it as perfect timing.
“My art has always been very therapeutic — to express your feelings and to show the beauty of life,” she said.
Even during COVID?
“Especially during COVID.”